Milligan, Alice (1866–1953)

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Milligan, Alice (1866–1953)

Irish writer, one of the first dramatists of the Celtic Twilight, who became an influential propagandist for the Irish nationalist movement in the early 20th century. Name variations: I.O.; Iris Olkyrn. Born Alice Letitia Milligan on September 14, 1866, in Omagh, County Tyrone, Ireland; died in Tyrcur, Omagh, on April 13, 1953; daughter of Seaton Forest Milligan (a businessman) and Charlotte (Burns) Milligan; sister of Charlotte Milligan Fox (1864–1916); educated at Methodist College, Belfast, and King's College, London.


Honorary D.Litt, National University of Ireland (1941).

Co-founded, with Anna Johnston (Ethna Carbery), journals Northern Patriot and Shan Van Vocht; was a prolific contributor to various Irish journals; was an organizer for the Gaelic League; was a founder member of Ulster Anti-Partition Council.

Selected publications:

(with Seaton F. Milligan) Glimpses of Erin (London: Ward, 1888); (play) The Last Feast of the Fianna (Dublin: Nutt, 1900); Hero Lays (Dublin: Maunsel, 1908); (with W.H. Milligan) Sons of the Sea Kings (Dublin: Gill, 1914); (play) The Daughter of Donagh (Dublin: Martin Lester, 1920); (with W.H. Milligan) The Dynamite Drummer (Dublin: Martin Lester, n.d.); (with Ethna Carbery and Seumas MacManus) We Sang for Ireland (Dublin: Gill, 1950); (selected, edited and with an introduction by Henry Mangan) Poems (Dublin: Gill, 1954); (ed. by Sheila Turner Johnston) The Harper of the Only God: A Selection of Poetry by Alice Milligan (Omagh: Colourpoint Press, 1993).

Alice Milligan was born in 1866, the third of thirteen children of Charlotte Burns Milligan and Seaton Milligan, a prosperous Ulster businessman. Alice had a comfortable, happy childhood in Omagh from where her father commuted to work in Belfast. Her poem "When I was a Little Girl" describes her Omagh childhood and her consciousness of seeing things differently from others. Seaton Milligan had a considerable influence on his daughter. His business took him around the countryside, and he acquired an impressive knowledge of local history, archaeology, and antiquities which he passed on to Alice and to some of his other children. His eldest daughter Charlotte Milligan Fox became a well-known collector of folk songs and founded the Irish Folk Song Society. In 1911, Charlotte published Annals of the Irish Harpers, which was a standard reference book for many years. Seaton was elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy in 1887 and a fellow in 1888. He contributed articles to the journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland and organized archaeological expeditions. He was also interested in working-class education, and organized talks and lectures for the local workingmen's institute. His children were free to use his extensive library, and Alice later wrote that her father made sure that they knew history and also discussed international affairs and literature with them. Another influence was the formidable family servant Jane who joined the household the year Alice was born. Jane had been a servant in the house of Mary Ann McCracken , sister of Henry Joy McCracken, one of the leaders of the 1798 rebellion in Ulster. Mary Ann had offered to stay with her brother until his execution. Alice absorbed all this knowledge, and she and her father collaborated on a short tourist guide, Glimpses of Erin, published in 1888. In the book Seaton wrote that "patriotism … far from being an irrational sentiment is entirely rational and desirable from a utilitarian point of view. It is as much so from a Christian standpoint. By living in our own land and doing our best to benefit it, we can best carry out the command 'Do unto others as you would that they should do to you.'" It was a view that Alice shared wholeheartedly.

When Alice was 12, the family moved to Belfast when her father was made a director of his firm. Seaton was determined that his daughters would have a good education, and in 1879 she went to Methodist College where she excelled academically, winning prizes in music, mathematics, English, Scripture, and science. Milligan later expressed regret that so little Irish history and culture was taught at the school, but made up for this lack on her own. She started to learn Irish although this was not completely unfamiliar to her: her great-uncle, Armour Alcorn, spoke it to the young men who worked on his farm. Her first poems were published in the school magazine Eos. After leaving Methodist College in 1886, Alice, unlike her sisters, did not go to Germany to finish her education but went instead to the Ladies' Department of King's College, London, where she studied English history and literature. But she did not graduate and returned to Ireland in 1887. Later that year, she obtained a temporary teaching post at the Ladies Collegiate School in Derry where she met Marjorie Arthur , the music teacher there, who became one of her few close friends.

In 1888, after again rejecting her parents' offer to send her to Germany, Milligan went to Dublin for three years to learn Irish language and literature. She studied at the Royal Irish Academy and at the National Library. Culturally and politically, it was a stimulating time to be in the Irish capital. There were the first stirrings of the Irish cultural renaissance, and Charles Stewart Parnell, leader of the Irish party at Westminster, was at the height of his political powers. But in 1890, Parnell's career was irreparably damaged after the scandal when he was cited in the William and Kitty O'Shea divorce case. In June 1891, Milligan attended a political meeting in Dublin at which Parnell was present and was struck by his sad expression: "he looked beaten and ashamed." She was bitter against the Catholic Church for rejecting Parnell and expressed these feelings in two later poems, "Bonnie Charlie" and "At Maynooth."

Fox, Charlotte Milligan (1864–1916)

Irish singer and collector of folksongs. Born Charlotte Milligan on March 17, 1864, in Omagh, County Tyrone, Ireland; died in London, England, on March 25, 1916; daughter of Seaton Forest Milligan (a businessman) and Charlotte (Burns) Milligan; sister of Alice Milligan (1866–1953); married.

In 1904, Charlotte Milligan Fox founded the Irish Folk Song Society. A musician in her own right, she toured Ireland, collecting folk songs and airs and recording them on gramophone. In 1911, Fox published Annals of the Irish Harpers from the papers of musician and antiquarian Edward Bunting, a work which remained a standard reference book for many years.

Milligan returned to Belfast shortly after this and for the next three years remained at home with her family. Politically, she was increasingly at odds with the society around her, as the polarization of opinion over self-government for Ireland became entrenched. The vast majority of the prosperous, Protestant, Ulster middle class that Milligan came from was vehemently opposed to any form of self-government for Ireland, believing that their prosperity was bound up with the rest of Britain. Within her own family, Alice's nationalist sympathies provoked disagreements, though her parents were always tolerant of her views. Her biographer Sheila Turner Johnston speculates that potential suitors from her own background were also put off by her nationalism yet Milligan herself regarded mixed marriages of Protestants to Catholics with disapproval, as evident in her poem "The Heretic." Later, she was to take issue with those who regarded Protestantism and nationalism as incompatible.

In February 1892, Marjorie Arthur died suddenly, an event Milligan commemorated in some of her finest poems, "Nocturne," "March Violets," "Lyrics in Memory of a Sea Lover," "The White Wave Following" and "If This Could Be." Later that year, her favorite brother Seaton left for Ceylon and for some time after this Alice suffered from depression. The next year was to be a watershed for Milligan. She decided to write professionally and completed a novel, The Royal Democrat. She also started another novel, The Daughter of Donagh, which eventually became a play. In May 1893, United Irishman published her poem "Lugh Lamh-Fada," which received warm praise from other nationalist writers. In the same year, her family moved to the Cave Hill area of Belfast where many writers and politicians lived, among them Robert Johnston and his daughter Anna Johnston MacManus (whose pen name was Ethna Carbery), and F.J. Biggar, a former member of Parliament whose house, Ardrigh, was a prominent political and cultural center. It was in 1893 that Alice met W.B. Yeats and AE (G.W. Russell) for the first time, and Yeats visited her when lecturing in Belfast in November 1893. Although their views on literature and politics diverged considerably and Yeats was lukewarm about her poetry, advising her to stick to drama, they would remain friends until his death in January 1939.

In 1895, Milligan became actively involved in a number of organizations in Belfast: she was president of the Belfast branch of the Irish Women's Association, and also became an organizer for the Gaelic League which had been founded in Dublin in 1893. But the most important new group was the Henry Joy McCracken Literary Society, set up in February 1895, which was such a success that its committee decided to publish a paper, the Northern Patriot, and appointed Milligan and Anna Johnston as editors. The first issue appeared in October 1895, in

which the editors declared in the editorial that they wished to enlist nationalists from around the country "to deliver sound and instructive addresses to our members. By this means the North [Ulster] will be put in touch with the other provinces, and a bond of love and union will cement all in pushing forward the good old cause that has braved unceasing persecution for seven centuries." But this overtly political tone was unwelcome to the committee of the McCracken Society, and after three issues it dispensed with the services of Milligan and Johnston. They promptly set up a new journal of their own, Shan Van Vocht. The rival journals appeared side by side for almost two years until the Northern Patriot ceased publication in November 1897.

Shan Van Vocht (in Irish "poor old woman," a metaphor for Ireland) was one of the most influential of the various literary and political journals which emerged in Ireland at the turn of the century. It gave a platform to the women's movement and to James Connolly, the socialist republican leader, who complained to Alice that too many of the new societies and committees which had sprung up were obsessed with the past. Milligan and Johnston also helped to organize home reading circles which were coordinated throughShan Van Vocht. The Donegal writer Seumas MacManus wrote that they both had "revived Irish nationalism when it was perishing." In 1898, Alice was the Ulster organizing secretary of the 1798 rebellion centenary, and under the auspices of Shan Van Vocht published a biography of one of the rebellion's leaders Wolfe Tone. She and Johnston also wrote many little plays, some in Irish, which they toured around the north of Ireland. However, in 1899, with the launching of a new journal, United Irishman, by their friends Arthur Griffith and William Rooney, Alice and Anna decided to give up Shan Van Vocht.

Irish literature cannot be developed in any hedged-in peaceful place, whilst a conflict is raging around. It must be in the thick of the fight.

—Alice Milligan

In February 1900, the Irish Literary Theatre, one of the forerunners of the Abbey Theatre, staged Milligan's play The Last Feast of the Fianna, the first of a trilogy which subsequently included Oisín Tír na nÓg and Oisín and Pádraig (both 1909). Yeats praised The Last Feast of the Fianna but the following year he and Lady Augusta Gregory rejected Milligan's The Daughter of Donagh. Despite this rejection, her plays and tableaux were performed all over Ireland at festivals. In 1901, Anna Johnston married Seumas MacManus but died tragically the following year, and in 1903 Alice's sister Evelyn died. These deaths distressed her greatly, but she continued to write and to teach and lecture for the Gaelic League, an experience she commemorated in her poem "The Man on the Wheel." In 1908, she published her most successful book of poetry, Hero Lays, which was edited by AE. He thought she wrote the best patriotic poetry but also insisted, despite her opposition, that the volume include the autobiographical "When I Was a Little Girl." It proved one of the most popular poems in the book. In 1910, she helped her sister Charlotte with her research for the Folk Song Society, and together they paid a nostalgic visit to Omagh to take down some local songs. In 1914, her brother William returned to Ireland from Chicago, and they collaborated on a novel, Songs of the Sea Kings. In an article for the 1914 July–August issue of the Irish Review, the academic and writer Thomas McDonagh wrote that Alice Milligan was "the most Irish of living poets, and therefore the best." He compared her to Thomas Davis, the leader of the Young Ireland movement of the 1840s, who was, like Milligan, primarily a propagandist, though McDonagh considered that she had a better command of word and phrase than Davis.

Sheila Turner Johnston has noted the ambivalence between Alice Milligan's stirring patriotic prose and her abhorrence of violence. She celebrated Irish heroes and patriots; "she idealized organization, strategy, discipline and self-denying obedience to orders. Her romantic visions were of marching soldiers and green flags flying." But as far back as the October 1896 issue of Shan Van Vocht, she had condemned the use of dynamite methods:

Those who would stoop to suggest, or organize, or carry out anything of the sort, degrade the name of their country, and in the eyes of the whole world render her less worthy of Nationhood. Ireland's cause is high and holy: When Irishmen cease to regard it as so, the faith which has sustained the strife of ages will perish and she will sink into hopeless bondage…. Stern and terrible deeds are often done and may justly be done in such a strife as ours; but this method of bomb throwing and blowing up buildings, without aim or reason other than the mere desire for vengeance is imbecile and wrong.

Milligan had to cope alone with her parents' increasing ill-health and the strains of the First World War. The year 1916 was to prove a shattering one. Her mother died in January 1916, her sister Charlotte died two months later in March, and within weeks of this came her father's death on April 6. These personal tragedies were followed by a political one three weeks later, when the Easter Rebellion took place in Dublin. The aftermath of the rebellion with its executions and arrests affected Milligan deeply. Thomas McDonagh, her admiring reviewer of 1914, was one of those executed, as was James Connolly who had written for Shan Van Vocht.Sinéad Flanagan , who had acted in some of her plays and with whom she remained on friendly terms, was married to Eamon de Valera, who was sentenced to penal servitude for life. But most harrowing of all for Milligan was the fate of her friend Roger Casement, whom she had first met in 1904 at F.J. Biggar's house Ardrigh. Casement was arrested shortly before the rebellion after arriving secretly back in Ireland from an abortive attempt to secure German support for the rebels. He was put on trial for treason in London, and Alice attended the trial with another close friend of Casement, the historian Alice Stopford Green . The result was a foregone conclusion, and Milligan was outside Pentonville Prison on August 3, 1916, when Casement was executed. She wrote about these experiences in two poems, "The Ash Tree of Uis-neach" (dedicated to Alice Stopford Green) and "In The Wirral" (dedicated to another friend, Ita McNeill , who had also been in London for the trial). Milligan published other poems in the period of 1917–19, most of which appeared in P.J. Little's journal Young Ireland.

After this, Milligan's life became increasingly dominated by family and financial problems. In her early 50s, she had no steady income. She went to live in England in 1919 but briefly returned to Ireland with her brother William in 1920, at the height of the Irish war of independence. In a cruelly ironic twist for Alice, William, who had served in the British army, was given 24 hours to leave Dublin or be shot by the Irish Republican Army. William and Alice then went to Belfast. Alice was distressed by the political divisions which followed the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921, and was horrified by the civil war which broke out in June 1922. Worst of all for her, Ireland was now partitioned into two states, the 26 counties of the Irish Free State and the 6 counties of Northern Ireland which included her beloved Tyrone. She and William spent ten years in England before finally returning in the 1930s to Northern Ireland where William secured a minor job with the Northern Ireland civil service. William, his wife and son, and Alice lived in a village near Omagh. Her nephew, of whom she was very fond, died in 1934 aged only 26. William died three years later. Milligan published a few poems in de Valera's Irish Press whose editor, M.J. MacManus, was an old friend. In 1938, she was the only woman signatory of a pamphlet issued by the Northern Council for Unity protesting the partition of Ireland. During the Second World War, after the death of her sister-in-law, Alice went to live in Antrim. She visited Dublin in 1941 to receive an honorary doctorate from the National University of Ireland, the chancellor of which was Eamon de Valera. In 1943, the Tyrone Feis (festival) held in Omagh presented her with a testimonial from friends all over Ireland. Her reminiscences were recorded by both the BBC and by Radio Eireann.

Flanagan, Sinéad (b. around 1878)

Irish actress and wife of the first president of Ireland. Name variations: Sinead Flanagan; Sinéad de Valera. Born Sinéad Flanagan around 1878; attended Irish College, 1909; married Eamon de Valera (1882–1975, first president of Ireland), in January 1910; children: two daughters, Emer de Valera and Máirín de Valera (b. April 1912, a professor of Botany at Galway University); and five sons, Éamonn, Ruairí, Terry, Vivion, and Brian.

Sinéad Flanagan, a popular and politically active member of the Gaelic League, was one of Eamon de Valera's teachers. He soon fell in love with the vibrant, dedicated woman, who was four years his senior, and they were married on January 8, 1910. Insisting that the ceremony be performed in Gaelic, they had to teach the priest the proper words. In 1932, soon after Eamon became head of the Irish government, Sinéad began to write for children in Irish and English. Although the wife of a very public figure, she was unassuming and avoided the limelight.

Alice Milligan's poems and plays were scattered throughout the nationalist press, and she never made any effort to collect them herself, a task she left to others such as F.J. Biggar; they had served their purpose, and that was enough as far as she was concerned. But in 1950, to her great pleasure, the Dublin publishers M.H. Gill released We Sang for Ireland, a selection of poetry by Alice Milligan, Ethna Carbery, and Seumas MacManus. It was a happy reminder of Shan Van Vocht. In 1951, Milligan moved back to Tyrcur near Omagh, where she died on April 13, 1953. The inscription on her gravestone reads: "She loved no other place but Ireland." After the start of the troubles in Northern Ireland, attempts were made to chisel away the inscription and on one occasion explosives were used to try to destroy the memorial.


Johnston, Sheila Turner. Alice: A Life of Alice Milligan. Omagh, Northern Ireland: Colourpoint Press, 1994.

O'Hehir, Kathryn. Alice Milligan: The Celtic Twilight's Forgotten Star. University of North Dakota, Ph.D. thesis, 1991.

suggested reading:

Boyd, Ernest. Ireland's Literary Renaissance. Dublin: 1916 (rev. ed. 1922, rep. Dublin: Allen Figgis, 1968).

Davis, Richard. Arthur Griffith and Non-Violent Sinn Fein. Dublin: Anvil Press, 1974.

Yeats, W.B. Memoirs. Edited by Denis Donoghue. London: Macmillan, 1972.

Deirdre McMahon , lecturer in history at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland

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Milligan, Alice (1866–1953)

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